Beyond step and spinning

There are as many ethnic-style workouts as ethnic restaurants in New York.

Published December 10, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Faster than you can say "chicken schwarma falafel babaganoush please," health clubs are booking classes that sound more like exotic meals than workouts. At just about every health club in New York, you can go Korean, Brazilian or Israeli, with a little Indian or a side of Thai.

Ethnic workouts have always existed -- think oily Greco-Roman wrestling -- and were especially big in the early 1980s, during the height of the video workout craze. (Remember "Buns of Steel" with that silly man telling us to "squeeze out those cheeseburgers"?) But back then, ethnic workouts were marketed to their same demographic. Big sellers included the Irish "Jig Don't Jog," "Woman! Free Yo' Soul," the Yiddish dubbed workout tape "Putting on the 'Shvitz," and the short-lived "Afrobics" craze.

But now ethnic workouts have moved into America's gyms. Says Peg Jordan, R.N., author of "The Fitness Instinct" (Rodale Press, 1999), "The backbone of American aerobics up until now has been white girl, cheerleader, up-and-down moves. And people are really sick of that." Amen from this white chick.

And somewhere along the line, people forgot that workouts are supposed to be fun. Jordan says that the new generation of ethnic workouts provides a kinder, gentler way to exercise. "I got so sick of aerobics instructors shrieking at me, 'Do the helicopter! Do the helicopter!' With ethnic workouts you get to kick off your shoes and dance to live drummers. For the first time we're addressing the pleasure principal of workouts. I call it the seventh sense, the instinct for movement. Once you've connected with it there's no going back to rigid, repetitive aerobics."

In addition to helping white people look less idiotic on the dance floor, ethnic workouts are also a great way to get your heart pumping (and not only because your Latin dance instructor is so hot). "I'm all for any kind of workout which is getting people to move their bodies," says Lisa Sasson, a professor of sports nutrition at New York University who has consulted for Claudia Schiffer. "Exercise isn't just touching your toes or running on a treadmill by yourself for 20 minutes. You have to have fun too, and what better way to do it than by samba-ing or dancing to live drummers?"

A word of warning: Since many of these workouts can be strenuous for the uninitiated, Sasson stresses the importance of stretching before and after working out. "You need to work up to a certain level to take some of the more advanced classes," says Sasson. And this is no time to play Captain America. Be realistic about what kind of shape you're in and consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.

So this Princess America decided to dive headfirst into ethnic workouts. When I told a friend I couldn't meet for drinks because I had 16 exercise classes to attend this week, he said, "What? Are you trying to fit into a size 2 dress by, like, Saturday?"

That would take more than a week, sweetheart, and some major liposuction. But in seven days I cartwheeled, kicked, shimmied, drummed and sang, wiggled my booty, jiggled my breasts and learned to love my tummy. I have never been in so much pain in my life. And I loved it.

The first stop was a Krav Maga class (pronounced krav ma-GAH). Developed in 1948, it's the official self-defense system of the Israeli army. There are no rules and there is no underlying philosophy. (Which reminds me of an arms dealer I used to date who liked kick-boxing because all he had to do was "hit and be hit.") The classes were held at an Upper West Side preschool.

The class started off with good old-fashioned jumping jacks, sit-ups and push-ups. Then we paired off to practice simple self-defense moves, such as kicks, blocks, punches and choke holds. The instructor, Rhon Mizrachi, has been practicing Krav Maga since he was 8 years old, and is a former Israeli paratrooper.

Rhon has the kind of posture I'd seen only once before -- on a 5-foot-tall Cuban prison guard, during a journalism-school field trip to a Manhattan jail. Both men are short, stocky and look like they're about to rip your arms off and eat them for lunch. But Rhon -- with a voice that's smooth as butter and olive green eyes -- is an excellent and attentive instructor.

He explained that Krav Maga is based on simple moves that anyone -- man, woman or child of any size -- can quickly learn. It isn't about being able to balance on foot, spin and kick at someone's head to defend yourself. Its simplicity is one reason Krav Maga has been used by California, Arizona and Illinois police departments. It teaches you to go for the jugular -- or the eyes, groin or nose -- with all you've got. "We have three principles in Krav Maga," says Mizrachi, his eyes widening. "No. 1, the ability to receive pain. No. 2, the ability to deliver pain. And No. 3, the desire to survive."

Katrina Kothe, the highest ranking female instructor in the United States, explains the beauty of Krav Maga this way: "It doesn't matter if you're fighting a big guy who can bench 250 pounds. I mean, thank God that men have groins because you can hit them there and knock them out." Umm, yes, I also thank God men have groins but it's not for the same reason.

Girls, you know when you imagine the perfect pair of shoes, head down to Manhattan's West 4th Street and realize that a glorious shoe designer has created them and they exist just for you? That's how I felt about Edna Lima's abada capoeira class. It's the workout class I've been waiting for all my life.

Remember Wesley Snipes' cool fighting scenes in "Blade"? That's capoeira (cap-o-WHERE-ah), a Brazilian form of martial arts disguised as dance. It was originally created by African slaves in Brazil who wanted to practice self-defense without alerting their masters. The class, held at the chic Duomo Gym (owned by former Mr. America Rich Barretta), is taught by Edna Lima, a wiry 38-year-old Brazilian with waist-length dreads and an ear-splitting grin. She put on a tape with kicking beats, and we went to town.

Capoeira looks like a cross between martial arts and vogueing. Or imagine that your local dojo was suddenly taken over by drag queens and you've got it. The basic position is a squat, with lots of side and front lunges. In a nutshell, capoeira is madness. Kicks are done in a handstand position. Push-ups are done on your side -- on one leg -- with your ear pressed to the floor, as if eavesdropping. To do a pull-up, we supported ourselves on our arms with our legs in front, while scuttling across the floor, backward. At one point, the class formed two lines facing each other and cartwheeled down the room. Cartwheels! I haven't done one since I was 12. By the end of the class, I felt like a rock star and a superhero. I felt like Trinity from "The Matrix." I was sold.

One hour and five buckets of sweat later, I asked Edna to describe capoeira's appeal. "Many workouts separate body and mind. You go to the gym and check e-mail, watch TV. It is a parking lot for your body. But not with capoeira. It demands physically and mentally. And you built like sculpture." She also reminded me that, above all, capoeira is intended for self-defense. "We use entire body as weapon. The elbow, the head, the spit. We bite, you know."

While biting workouts don't exist -- yet -- there does seem to be a growing trend toward violent combat workouts that is alarming some fitness experts.

"There's an Iranian 'We beat you!' class that's really big in L.A.," says Jordan. "It fits in with a feeling that many people have that if they don't punish themselves, they're not getting a good workout. I interviewed Jane Fonda once and she said that after a six-hour hike with Ted, she'll do an hour of weights and an hour of cardio. And I said, 'Jane! Are you nuts? That's like eight hours of working out!' And this is the type of workout role model that we've all grown up with."

Luckily, that's all changing. Lisa Hufcut, director of group fitness programming at New York Sports Club, chalks up the popularity of ethnic workouts to the recent reinvention of low-impact aerobics. "Until now, 'low-impact' has been almost a dirty word in fitness. But the cultural dance classes are a great way to work out and still be gentle on your knees."

Hufcut says the club tries out four or five different classes a month, and she always has her eye on new trends. She has even plucked Chinese and African musicians from the New York subway to perform during classes. (I'm waiting for her to scoop up the guy in Times Square who sambas with the blow-up doll.) The Washington branch offers Irish step-dancing classes, and Indian dance moves will soon be added to the fitness lineup. "It's a great opportunity to experience different cultures under one roof. It's kind of like Disney's 'It's a small world.'"

Which is precisely what amuses one professor of media, sports and society. Todd Boyd teaches at the University of Southern California and is the author of "Am I Black Enough for You? Popular Culture from the 'Hood & Beyond" (University of Indiana Press, 1997). "In my mind, exercise is inherently boring and monotonous," he says. "It's inevitable that the style of workouts is going to change.

"On one hand, ethnic workouts are another example of the nonmainstream being allowed to exist in the mainstream. The population is changing and we're starting to realize that. But here, culture is reduced to difference. It's like when Americans eat Indian food and think they know something about India. Or if you start to assume that because you belly dance, so does everyone in Turkey. Well, then, you're just a ..."

"Turkey?" I offer helpfully.


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Feeling pumped, I decided to end my week by trying a different type of capoeira, called angola. I showed up at a small Chelsea building and spent 30 minutes pleading with the teacher to let me attend the class. When he finally said yes (through a translator), I realized I was in the right building, but the wrong class. But what the hell, I'll give it a shot. Mestre Joao Grand, old yet sprightly, looks like someone straight out of the "Buena Vista Social Club." The students formed two lines and slowly twisted, tumbled and somersaulted down the studio like jungle cats. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Luckily, a sweet-natured student named Will Sears took pity on me and showed me the basic moves, which are performed in a low squat.

Angola capoeira is much slower than Edna Lima's version, and I colossally sucked at it.

After three hours, the entire class sat in a circle and grabbed instruments for the roda, where students are allowed to play or spar. Will set me up with a conga-like drum and showed me what to do. I gave it a good whack.

"Like this?"

"Uh, yeah. But quieter."

At one point Will leaned over and whispered to pay attention to the lyrics because it would soon be my turn to sing. No way, uh-uh, forget it. While the workout was fantastic -- my thighs burned for days -- it unearthed awful memories of fourth-grade music class where I would invariably get stuck with a lame instrument, like the triangle. Conclusion? Totally traumatic.

On to belly dancing. While the instructor looked graceful and sinewy and sexy, I looked like a paraplegic chicken trying to take flight. The instructor also defied feats of nature by being able to dance -- to rhythm! -- using only her breasts. There was so much pumping and thrusting that the class even made me blush. But all together, it was a blast and I'll definitely be back.

By the end of the week my lactic acid levels were hovering at stellar heights, and I was too pooped to attend any more classes. But I may rest up and hit the rest of the ethnic workouts, just to say I did. They include "D's Hip Hop Body Shop" at Manhattan's mammoth Chelsea Piers, Afro-Caribbean dance, Filipino stick-fighting and a modern Samurai class in Queens, which includes a section on legalese in case a lawsuit ever arises from an attack.

It's a wide, wonderful world of slimming down out there.

By Christina Valhouli

Christina Valhouli is a New York writer and the co-producer of an upcoming documentary about plus-size models, "Curve."

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